For the first time since the 1870s, the gap between the expected lifespan of the rich and the poor is getting wider in England and Wales. A study by City University London confirms that, whilst people are living longer overall, the lifespan of rich people is expanding faster.
Using statistics from the Human Mortality Database, the researchers looked at the age difference between the youngest 10% and oldest 5% of adult deaths. The gap steadily closed between 1870 and 1939 thanks to advancements such as clean drinking water, higher quality housing, increased income and improvements in health.
From 1950 onwards, life expectancy rose but the imbalance between the rich and the poor continued rather than getting narrower. However, since the 1990s, the inequalities in lifespan began to worsen again for the first time in around 120 years, especially for the male population.
The greatest contributing factor to this disparity is poor lifestyle choices. Whilst people benefited from public health improvements in the past, personal choices in the way people choose to live their lives now have a much greater impact. Those most likely to make lifestyle choices which damage their health are men in the lower socio-economic groups.
Whilst whether or not a person is wealthy does not have a direct impact on lifespan, poorer people suffer the mounting effects of poor lifestyle choices, whereas it is easier to develop healthier habits for those who are better off. The health risks of a poor diet, low levels of exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol to excess, are disproportionately distributed towards those who are poorer.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health offered a statement about the work that is already being done by the government. “The number of workless households is at a record low and we know that economic security can provide the foundation for better physical and mental health. We have shown that we are willing to take tough action to protect the public’s health.” Meanwhile, the chief executive of the International Longevity Centre, Baroness Sally Greengross, described the findings as “particularly worrying”, adding that “preventing inequalities in ill health and disability must be a priority for policy action” for the government.